Auring the Labor Party conference this month, Keir Starmer has the opportunity to turn the tide. Her leadership so far has been a story of wasted opportunities. He wasted the goodwill that greeted his arrival as Labor leader, opting for internal war over unity. Not wanting to look outward and give the country a clear message, its poll scores have collapsed.
Starmer’s response to his party’s bad stance was as flawed as it was dishonorable: he signaled he could abandon the 10 sweeping political pledges he made to Labor and union members, which he has been on elected to his post. If he’s not careful, he risks freezing in the minds of the public as someone who cannot be trusted.
Unfortunately, my own experience with Starmer – as leader of Labor’s largest affiliated union until last month – offers nothing to dispel this image. My successor as General Secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham – the most formidable campaign force in the labor movement – will have her own approach to Labor and its leader. But here’s what I learned.
When Starmer took over, I was hoping for a good relationship between us. For starters, that’s how they were. Contrary to what you might expect, I’ve talked to Starmer a lot more than I’ve ever done to Jeremy Corbyn. But that all changed after Starmer’s destructive decision to suspend his predecessor from the party in October of last year.
As I further explain in my book, Always Red, the ultimate failure did not come from the suspension itself – although I thought it was a brash act – but when Starmer chose to break an honest deal between us for Corbyn’s readmission to the party.
This all follows the release of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on anti-Semitism within the Labor Party on October 29 last year. I expected Starmer to welcome the report and take the opportunity to move on from a painful saga, which was the point of a speech he gave that morning. His words were good, on the whole, and he resisted journalists’ attempts to get him to attack his predecessor.
Then, about an hour later, Starmer called me to tell me he had suspended Corbyn. I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t a bad dream.
Now it is important to set the record straight. Later that day, Labor informed reporters that Starmer had not personally suspended Corbyn; party secretary general David Evans had. This was important because one of the main lessons of the EHRC was that there should be no political interference in disciplinary matters – that such interference could be illegal. Starmer was careful to say the following morning on the BBC Today show: “Appropriate action was taken yesterday by the Secretary General to suspend Jeremy Corbyn.”
But that’s not what he told me on the phone. His words were, “He put me in an impossible position and I had no choice. “
Starmer had been enraged by a statement Corbyn released on the morning of the EHRC report. In it, Corbyn made it clear that “anyone who claims that there is no anti-Semitism in Labor is wrong” and that “one anti-Semite is one too many”, but he also said that the The magnitude of the problem had been “considerably overestimated”. by opponents and the media. Corbyn sought to substantiate his claim in a broadcast interview, pointing to the poll this suggested a wide gap between the perception of the extent of anti-Semitism in the party (the public thought complaints had been lodged against a third of the members) and what the former leader said was “the reality” that 0.3% of members had actually been subjected to disciplinary investigations.
Starmer, in his speech, said that anyone who said anti-Semitism was “all over the top” was part of the problem. Corbyn, of course, hadn’t said it was all over the top, but Starmer has now raised the bar. He told me over the phone that Corbyn had deliberately undermined him. “It is as if he has done everything possible to contradict that line of my speech,” he said. “I’m more than angry with Jeremy.”
I couldn’t believe what had happened. I sincerely thought that Starmer had lost his temper and made a mistake; I didn’t want to think that such a damaging act was premeditated. I called him back and left a message on the answering machine. “I think it was a knee-jerk reaction,” I said, “I have to be honest with you.” I suggested that he take a step back, meet Jeremy personally, and try to sort it out. “Otherwise it will get completely out of hand, the complete opposite of what you wanted to do,” I warned.
That evening, during a Zoom call between figures on the left, it was agreed that before we mobilize members against the suspension – and potentially split the party – we should see if a negotiated solution can be found. It turned out that the management was eager to speak. The following afternoon, MP Jon Trickett and I went to Parliament for a meeting with Starmer, his Chief of Staff Morgan McSweeney and Deputy Chief Angela Rayner. Rayner began by asking that our discussion be confidential. Considering what happened afterwards, I no longer feel bound by this.
Trickett and I asked if there was a way to negotiate a settlement to avoid an internal war. Starmer replied that he didn’t want a war and was happy to talk about ways to reach a solution. He indicated that a clarifying statement from Corbyn might be one way to resolve the issue. “Are you saying if we could come up with some agreed-upon form of words that Jeremy and you, Keir, are happy with, the suspension could be lifted?” ” I asked.
“Yes,” Starmer said. The others also agreed.
The following afternoon, Trickett and Starmer’s senior adviser, Simon Fletcher, had drafted a statement. I joined a conference call with McSweeney. I said, “As far as we’re concerned, we expect that if Jeremy accepts the statement, then that’s the end of the matter and the stay will be lifted, after due process, and Jeremy will come back to the normal. “
McSweeney’s response was, “Yes, that’s our expectation too. “
“And you speak for Keir?” I asked.
“Yes,” came his response.
It was the agreement for the reinstatement of Corbyn. A month and a half later, in response to questions from Sky News reporter Tom Rayner, Starmer’s spokesperson said: “There was no agreement on reinstatement, no.” Asked if senior Labor officials had seen Corbyn’s statement (which they actually co-wrote) in advance, the spokesperson replied: ‘We are not going to comment on private conversations. . ” Well, I’m perfectly ready to comment. In fact, I have so much faith in my story that I submitted it for use as part of Jeremy Corbyn’s legal challenge against the whip removal and I will support it in court.
The formalities surrounding Corbyn’s readmission were dealt with by a panel of Labor’s national executive committee, which met on November 17. Corbyn released the joint statement that morning. “To be clear, concerns about anti-Semitism are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘exaggerated’,” the key passage read. “The point I wanted to make was that the vast majority of Labor Party members were and remain committed anti-racists deeply opposed to anti-Semitism.”
The five-person panel (only two of whom could be described as pro-Corbyn) unanimously decided to re-admit Corbyn to the party. He was greeted with rage. Margaret Hodge tweeted that this was “a broken result of a broken system”. The Jewish labor movement blamed a “faction-aligned political committee.”
I’m not sure if Starmer was taken by surprise by the backlash, but it soon became clear that he was going to collapse. It was reported that Hodge had given her an ultimatum that she would resign from the party if Corbyn remained a Labor MP. Starmer was also apparently “furious” with a tweet claiming management had gone downhill.
The result? Starmer reneged on our agreement. He pulled the Labor whip off Corbyn, leaving him in the absurd position of being a Labor MP and member, but not a Labor MP. At no time during my discussions had this possibility been mentioned. The goal of both sides was to get things back to normal. Yet Corbyn has now been told that if he wanted the whip to be restored, he would have to apologize – which prompted the question: if an apology was so important to leaders, why don’t they have one. included one in the statement they co-wrote?
I am a trade unionist. The only thing you never do is go back on a deal you negotiated. Livid, I released what a keeper journalist qualified as “absolutely blistering“statement.” This is a vindictive and vengeful act that… shows marked bad faith, “I said. It was at this point that I lost my personal relationship with Starmer. I could no longer him him. trust He was not a man of his word.
If this was an isolated example, perhaps it could be ruled out. But it looks more and more like a model that spans politics as well as politics – Labor’s 2017 manifesto has gone from Starmer’s “foundational document” to something it is “not interested in”. I still hope for a Labor government in the next election. But if Starmer continues on his current path, I fear for the party’s chances. Starmer needs to understand that the public is neither interested in nor impressed by internal bickering. They want answers to the problems they face every day from a leader who they think will do what they say.
Len McCluskey was General Secretary of Unite from 2011 to 2021. His autobiography, Always Red, is available at orbooks.com